Top Five Tuesday: Favourite Heroines

Hey everyone, and welcome back to Top Ten Tuesday!

We might be back to Weekly Reads by next week (or even later this week), but for now, I want to take up this past gem from the top ten archives.

But I’m not going to give you ten today, for two reasons: the first is that I want this list to grow as I keep reading, and the second is that I have a lot of feelings about heroines, and I don’t want to keep you here all day. So we’ll stop halfway.

But the cool thing about reading a lot of young adult and fantasy is that these genres often feature young women as protagonists. And for every bunch that function as cardboard cutouts too busy choosing between two dudes to do their own thing (even when we already know who they’ll pick),* there’s a diamond in the rough, some awesome, multi-faceted, worth-the-time character who is totally her own (inspiring) person.

*Not that it makes you a crap young woman to be in the middle of a love triangle, of course, but when/if it’s your only real defining characteristic, that’s an issue.

So without further ado, let’s talk about some of my favourite heroines!

#1. Phèdre (first Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy)

I’ve made it no secret around here that I’m a fan of Jacqueline Carey’s books (that I’ve read so far, anyway; I still have some on my list), and Phèdre is her heroine I started with. I also love Moirin (of Naamah’s Kiss), and I probably relate to her more (and she would definitely make a top ten), but Phèdre is just such a great hero(ine).

One of my biggest issues with heroines generally is the “action girl” type we get. Not that I don’t love young women who can kick ass, but there becomes a point when it’s glaringly obvious what’s been left out of women as heroes: traditionally feminine qualities. (All of the action girls are beautiful, of course, but they don’t know or try to be.) And when femininity is excluded from being heroic, it’s a little bit like saying being heroic is a guy thing, or at least for those young ladies who are “not like other girls.” And this is a real problem in young adult and adult fantasy alike. (And this is a very adult book, just FYI.)

But Phèdre is a really great middle finger to that concept. She’s gorgeous, well-groomed, a sex worker/pseudo-spy, and she experiences pain as pleasure. She proves the adage in her world “That which yields is not always weak.” Every way she’s underestimated, every time she gives in, she has a way to leverage her submission into the power she needs to save the day. She’s cunning, well-educated, and extremely compassionate. Her love for others is on occasion a weakness, but overall her greatest strength. She’s difficult to not appreciate. (She’s also bisexual—or maybe pansexual—which makes me happy.)

#2. Katniss Everdeen (the Hunger Games trilogy)

Okay, so Katniss is an action girl, albeit the bow type and not the kind in combat boots. She kicks ass, she doesn’t know she’s pretty, she’s not about openly expressing feelings, and…she’s choosing between two dudes through the whole trilogy.

The Hunger Games trilogy wasn’t the first to use all the tropes (people were pretty sick of the love triangle already post-Twilight series) but I’d argue it does so well, and that’s why I love Katniss. Because she has legitimate reasons not to worry too much about which boy she loves, since survival for herself and her family is foremost on her mind. (She also does her best to be honest with both of them.) And because Katniss isn’t the action girl who enjoys or seeks violence or who gets overly cocky or who can’t accept help. There’s a vulnerability in her compassion for others, in the way she struggles with trauma, in the way she copes with sarcasm, in how terrible she is at lying, in how imperfect she is.

And that vulnerability makes her bravery much more poignant. She’s the ultimate survivor, after all, and survival is a selfish instinct. She has to set it aside to put someone else’s life or the greater good first. She doesn’t always do it right away, or every time. But bravery isn’t the absence of fear; it’s what happens when you fight through it. And I feel that Katniss is an intensely brave heroine, and so much more interesting because of her flaws. (I have been known to fight people about this.)

#3. Hermione Granger (the Harry Potter series)

Let’s be clear about this: I’m not talking about Hermione from the movies. Emma Watson is great, but movie!Hermione is nearly Mary Sue flawless. She’s the smartest. She’s the best at all magic. She knows the most about the wizarding world. She’s traditionally gorgeous. She has no trouble getting along with anyone. And she is the one person who will follow Harry into death.

Book!Hermione is an annoying know-it-all, a nerd, a newcomer to witchcraft who knows trivia but not culture, who’s obsessed with homework and the rules, who’s left out because she has an prolonged awkward middle school phase in her looks, who is sometimes overwrought and uptight. She lives who she is without apologies or much care to what other people think, but sometimes when they sling insults at her, they still hurt. She’s a preteen to teenage girl and she’s a real human.

And I love all of that about her, because she is a traditionally unlikeable character. She is a Paris Geller (from Gilmore Girls). She’s a type A. She is the bossy (some might say nasty) sort of young woman who takes up her space in the room (and gets flack for it; never forgive Snape, by the way). She will continually try to press her friends into activism. (And S.P.E.W. is kinda messy, but she’s young and she’s learning.)

Hermione evolves, of course; she loosens up a lot. But she’s never not that person. And she’s still presented as a lovable (and even desirable) girl who’s totally worth your time. She’s also one of the best friends you could ever, ever have. Team Hermione always. (I am also very Ron/Hermione for Reasons.)

#4. Lyra Belacqua (His Dark Materials trilogy)

Oh man. This series was done so wrong in terms of adaptation, and I’m still bitter about it. Because it is so dang worth the time. (I really need to re-read it; it’s been a while.)

Lyra is really more of a child when we start with her; she’s only eleven. But she’s curious, quick-witted, intuitive, and a goes-to-the-end-of-the-earth friend. She knows how to find the right allies (including a talking bear, a balloon operator, and a boy who tells her he’s a murderer) because she sees past the surface of people, never judging a book by its cover. She pushes forward to do what’s right when adults would turn back in fear. She’s fiercely independent enough to not be afraid of going it alone, but smart enough to know when she needs help and to figure out where to find it.

Lyra’s not polite, she’s not refined, and she’s not going to stay quiet—she’s “flawed,” especially in her world and her position, but in ways that make her all the more likeable. She’s not a physical combatant, but she’s an amazing liar and manipulator, and she uses that skill to her advantage. She manages to be a badass without having any real social or political power or the ability to beat anyone up. That’s pretty awesome.

#5. Nancy Drew

I have to put Nancy Drew here, because respect. In terms of books, she’s very much an original lady badass. She has zero superpowers, mystical tools, or ability to severely maim anyone (unless you count her curiosity and ability to solve puzzles, on any of those counts), but she solves the hell out of mysteries and sometimes straight up saves lives. She endangers her own in the process, too.

Nancy’s from a while back, so to make her palatable she had to be white, wealthy enough, good at housekeeping, dating some boring dude, wearing dresses with nice coiffed hair and such. But she was also controversial for how well she operated independently, how little she needs some guy’s help, and how disinterested she is in things that aren’t solving mysteries, relatively. She is the message to young women ages ago that it’s socially acceptable to be the smartest and bravest dang person you know.

Also, I know Nancy dates Bland Blanderson, but let’s be real: Nancy should end up with George, who is totally a queer girl. It’s so obvious.

Who are some of your favourite literary heroines? Which ones should I read about to add to my list? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll see (er, type to) you again this Friday!

ETA: Sorry if this post, or any of my posts lately, have gone up later than usual; sometimes they miss their scheduled time, which is something I have to work out with my hosting. Thanks for any/all patience you may be exercising!

Leave a Reply